Twenty-first century life has complex systems woven into its daily fabric. We depend on power plants for our heat and light, we rely on air traffic controllers to use technology to handle hundreds of take-offs and landings every day, and we calmly accept that satellites orbiting the earth should be part of the mechanism for opening or closing a door on our trains.
Train doors used to have a simple mechanical system. You went to the door, pushed down the window, felt outside for the handle, and opened the door. You could do this at any time on the old slam-door trains, even while the train was moving. You could open the door on the wrong side of the train when it came to a platform stop. You could run beside the train when it had already started to move off and attempt to open the door and catapult yourself inside. Seasoned commuters, keen to be first off and at their desks, used to open the doors as the train arrived at stations. They would stand on the running boards, jump off while the train was still moving, and possibly reach the end of the platform before the driver did.
In 1993, the UK’s Health & Safety Executive published Passenger Falls From Train Doors, which reported that around 19 people died each year falling from moving trains. (That’s a link to Amazon, should you wish to purchase your own copy of this far-reaching survey.)
Eventually, the HSE called for all doors to be locked centrally. (PDF)
Central door locking, as it became known, became mandatory from 1 January 2006 and the old slam-door trains were phased out.
Southern Railway ran the final slam door train service on the Brighton main line on Saturday 26 November 2005. I know this because I was at the station and the platforms were over-run by railway enthusiasts celebrating one final ride.
The new trains with sliding doors and fixed windows are much safer. Trains do not start until the doors are shut and locked, and passengers cannot open them for a quick dice with death mid-journey. Figures from the Health & Safety Executive show that deaths of people falling from moving trains dropped from a high of 26 in 1987 to just one in 2003/2004.
The replacement trains were not without their own problems, however.
They had Selective Door Opening (SDO) systems. These are very useful. The operator of the system can choose which doors to open. You can open doors only on the side of the train actually next to the platform and, when a long train enters a station with platforms shorter than the train, not open doors in the carriages where the passengers would be stepping out into mid-air.
The SDO is controlled by global positioning satellites (GPS). The satellites locate the train at a specific station. As the train pulls into the station, the GPS identify the station and tell the SDO control which doors to open. The trouble was, the system didn’t work brilliantly.
Trains, after all, are often in tunnels, in heavily reinforced stations, and cannot always see the sky, nor the satellite the train.
So now your train might be delayed while the driver presses CTRL-ALT-DEL to restart or waits for a spare part for the GPS system.
We’ve gone from a simple door-handle to a satellite.
We understand that our modern tech systems are complex. We assume there is some risk involved when things are complex. That the GPS might suddenly decide it should be looking at maps for Brighton in New Zealand or that the train will catch fire in a tunnel, as they do, and the software won’t allow the opening of the doors for the fleeing passengers.
So yes, we assume there are risks, but we assume those risks are small. According to sociologist Charles Perrow, we’re wrong. His contention, in his 1984 book Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies, is that accidents are inevitable. Whether due to human error, trivial faults cascading into large ones, or complexity leading to incomprehension, system failures will happen, and happen in ways that you cannot predict. Accidents are “normal”.
Slam-door trains have been on my mind recently as my local railway — Southern — has been involved in a long and bitter dispute with its staff about — in part — who should open and close the train doors. The traditional method of train operation meant you had a driver to do the driving and a guard to do the “guarding”. The guard checked that boarding (people getting on the train) and alighting (people getting off) were done and dusted before closing the doors and alerting the driver to leave the station.
Southern would like to replace their two-person (2PO) train-operating methods to driver-only operation (DOO). Saves money, and reduces the risk you might have to cancel a train if only one person turns up to work instead of two. The unions argue that guards do much more than open and close doors. They look after the passengers, do “station duties” such as getting people with disabilities on and off trains, and are on hand to help if travellers need assistance. Many passengers, too, believe they aren’t as safe if there’s only one member of staff on a train.
Maybe those passengers have been reading Charles Perrow. I, for one, know that if I am on the train when the normal accident inevitably happens, and the entire network descends into chaos, I’d want the conductor to come and tell me everything will be all right. And make everything all right.